Retrospective: The Ponds

By Andrew Nikiforuk

Every Albertan now knows that the tar sands, the world’s largest energy project, drinks an enormous amount of water. Separating tar from sand is a messy, water-intensive business: producing just one barrel of oil requires an average of three barrels of fresh water. Industry now withdraws enough from the Athabasca River every year to sustain a city of two million people. It’s instructive that the Alberta Energy Research Institute, an agency not known for its environmental radicalism, calls this addiction “unsustainable.”

Few citizens, however, know much about the surprising fate of this water. Incredibly, 90 per cent of it never sees a fish or duck again. After being used to separate tar from sand in the equivalent of large washing machines, the water has the consistency of toxic grey ketchup. To dispose of the waste, industry pipes it off to what engineers call “settling basins,” or “tailings ponds.” With a little luck the water will separate from the slime and become fish-friendly within 150 years.

These ponds aren’t really ponds; they are man-made earthen dams. Not surprisingly, they uniquely constitute the largest collection of impoundments or dikes in the world. Nearly a dozen now line both sides of the Athabasca and pose an enduring threat to the Mackenzie River basin, Canada’s largest watershed. Many are also leaking and creating their own toxic wetlands. Their eventual reclamation remains an unsolved problem. Even the Alberta Chamber of Resources considers these primitive long-term storage ponds “a risk to the oil sands industry.” The ponds also explain why one oil sands executive, quoted anonymously in the journal Petroleum Economist in 2005, called his industry “an environmental freak show.” Like everything about the tar sands, the sheer scale of the tailings ponds boggles the imagination.

To read the entire article, from the November 2007 issue, click here.

Nikiforuk revisits “The Ponds”:

NOXIOUS lakes of bitumen waste—or what industry once informally referred to as “the ponds”—remain a disturbing testament to Canada’s stubborn mining character, as well as a multi-billion liability for taxpayers. 

Despite years of research and some technological improve-ments, the problem’s scale remains staggering. Every barrel of mined bitumen creates about 1.5 barrels of toxic waste. These tailings contain clay, salt, mercury, bitumen, naphthenic acids, arsenic and benzene. Because the clay or mature fine tailings don’t quickly separate from water, industry has built some of the world’s largest dams along the Athabasca River. 

In 2007 these “ponds” covered approximately 130 km2 of former boreal forest. Today as many as 25 ponds cover more than 220 km2, or an area greater than Manhattan and Boston combined. They contain 1.118 trillion litres of mining waste—enough poisonous slop to fill 400,000 Olympic-sized pools. By December 2008 they were leaking 11 million litres of industrial residue into the Athabasca every day.

A 2014 study for the University of Alberta’s Oil Sands Research and Information Network aptly summed up where things now stand—which is where they stood about 30 years ago: “The constant accumulation of mature fine tailings requires more and more ponds for storage; the ponds are a health risk to wildlife and disturb ecosystems in the surrounding area. The economic and environmental concerns created by the proliferating tailings ponds… have become one of the most critical challenges for the oil sands industry and regulators.” 

To date the province has failed to curb the exponential growth of mining waste. No regulations even existed until 2009. Public concern then forced regulators to propose some rules (Directive 074), but not one bitumen miner complied. In 2015 regulators tried again by announcing a new program to get companies to reduce the volume of their waste, but no real enforcement mechanism exists. Randy Mikula, a former federal tailings researcher, suspects “We’re going to see a lot more innovation than we would have under the old directive.” But new rules will let the ponds expand for two more decades.

UNESCO recently chastised our federal government for not developing the science to differentiate toxins released by natural weathering of bitumen from upgrading-activity contaminants and leaking tailings ponds.

In 2015 Alberta’s Auditor General warned that the province had collected only $1.57-billion in cleanup funds from bitumen miners—while estimated reclamation liabilities amounted to more than $21-billion: “In the event that a mine operator cannot fulfill its reclamation obligations, and no other private operator assumes the liability, the province may have to pay a potentially substantial cost for this work to be completed.” Industry has estimated that the real cost could exceed $44-billion if government requires them to treat polluted water in the ponds. 

Andrew Nikiforuk reports on the environment.

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